All of Huddersfield Town’s familiar failings were on display in a damaging, disheartening defeat played against the backdrop of a biblical deluge which lent an additional layer of gloom.
The frailty of a shallow squad was exposed, a stuttering, slow start was clinically punished and a first half littered with basic errors, many unforced, proved to be the undoing of a side which struggled to replicate the intensity of recent performances until a late surge nearly earned a point.
Missing the huge influence of the injured Whitehead, Town were defensively vulnerable while lacking a clinical edge up front and the weight of expectation seemed too heavy for some shoulders – seasoned Town followers could have warned David Warner that a surge of interest usually precedes anti climax.
From the kick off, Town failed to gain any control or possession and Bristol City completely turned the tables on the home team by pressing high and hard to force errors, and a cheap free kick given away by the increasingly vulnerable Hudson was whipped in for Fodjia to open the scoring. The delivery was excellent and only needed the slightest of contact but the lack of defensive organisation contributed.
A quick response was needed and was provided by a superb turn and run by Joe Lolley – easily the best home player throughout – who released Wells to be upended in the box. The lifeline would have changed the complexion of the game, but Huws weak effort was easily saved and a Bristol player somehow got to the rebound before the Welshman to clear.
On such moments do Championship games hinge, and an uphill task got much steeper as the home side’s lack of cohesion and errant passing encouraged a strong City side to impose themselves far too easily and enabled them to create panic at regular intervals before yet another unnecessary free kick was given away by Hogg.
This time, another practised free kick bamboozled the home defenders allowing a completely unmarked Flint (who had also been the first player to the penalty rebound) to head home with ease.
By the end of the half, Town were fortunate to be only 2 down as the visitors contrived to miss a couple of straightforward chances while their own fortunes in attack showed little sign of change despite several blocked and saved shots from Wells, Lolley and Chilwell.
It was perhaps expecting too much of Hogg to replicate Whitehead’s crucial role in the team and he had a horrible first half. Clearly not up to speed after a lengthy lay off, it could also be argued that he isn’t suited to a sitting brief and certainly didn’t possess Whitehead’s instinctive reading of the game and provided an ineffective defensive shield along with poor distribution.
Hogg wasn’t the only problem. Chilwell is a highly promising player but, forgivable for an 18 year old, had a day to forget on the whole and last week’s match winner, Scannell, found cul de sac after cul de sac as City’s left back contained him very effectively once he got to the point of delivery. Paterson was largely anonymous and withdrawn at half time in favour Miller – a stark and sobering reminder of the threadbare resources available to the new manager.
Soaked, literally and figuratively, Town trudged off to some boos from a disgruntled home support who had been expecting a major leap forward against the perceived weaker threat of a fellow struggler but witnessed solid, occasionally inventive opponents deservedly in front and precious little evidence of the lauded new style of play.
The second half proved more encouraging without dispelling any of the fears surrounding a team with too many flaws to be disguised by increased fitness, better ball retention and pressing. The sight of Miller being thrown on to change the fortunes of the game was emblematic of the serious difficulties Wagner will have to resolve in the next few weeks – both immediately to garner points in what should be a fruitful period and longer term with signings to inject better quality in the key positions of centre half and centre forward (a new right back is looking increasingly urgent, too).
While Miller is a lower league journeyman at best these days and his first contribution was a comically wild shot which went for a throw, he did provide an increased physicality to give the Bristol defence a different, if far from unsolvable, problem.
Employing a standard 4-1-4-1 formation and reigning in their attacking ambition, Cotterill – an experienced and solid manager – set up his team to frustrate the home side and was largely successful.
Town did, however, have openings. An early Chilwell effort went narrowly wide and attempts by Miller, Scannell and Wells were blocked, while the impressive Lolley hit the foot of the post with a good effort.
Surging runs by Scannell down the right, however, invariably ended in disappointment – he was either forced in to playing the ball back to Smith or hitting the first defender with attempted crosses. The one occasion he got in to a good free space, he over hit a ball in when a low trajectory could have found Wells in a replay of the second goal last week.
Dempsey, who had replaced the injured Huws in the first half, added energy but insufficient penetration while Lolley continued to cause danger with his running at the opposition but the increasing air of desperation in face of resolute visitors created more errors than danger.
Chilwell’s subdued performance rendered the left side largely redundant and increased the predictability of Scannell and Smith trying to engineer chances on the right, while the unsubtle presence of Miller was mostly dealt with easily by the visitors.
The game changed for the better when Bunn replaced Wells. The striker had worked hard in the first half and brought out a good save from Fielding in the second (Scannell was unable to control his follow up shot) but was injured while trying to gain a foul which didn’t fool another generally poor and inconsistent referee.
Bunn seemed to relish his opportunity and added spark to hitherto predictable forward play and his turn and return pass should have brought a goal for Dempsey who fired wide from a good position when he really should have scored.
Taking matters in to his own hands, Bunn then received a pass from Lolley, created space with a nice turn and smashed in a great goal from 30 yards in to the top corner.
A superb goal gave some hope of salvaging a point and it should have been gained when Miller’s presence forced a break in the area only for Dempsey to fire straight at the keeper, and the defeat was confirmed.
An equaliser would not have disguised the deepening problems facing Town’s new boss. The loss of Huws compounds the damaging absence of Whitehead and his leadership, goals are scarce despite opportunities being regularly created and a back four with Hudson and Smith is always going to be vulnerable.
Hogg fared a little better in the second half and it is to be hoped that game time will improve his sharpness and decision making, but he doesn’t seem suited to the role so effectively played by Whitehead – with Lynch hopefully returning soon, Wagner may have to change the way we protect a less vulnerable back four which should improve if Hudson is demoted to the bench.
For large swathes of the game, Town’s whole didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts as they had done in the first 3 performances under the German. With weaknesses in crucial areas, a drop in standards and performance is much more likely to be punished and the need for an injection of his own players was starkly exposed.
In their defence, Town were not helped by the disruption of Huws coming off – and even more handicapped by his poor penalty which would have changed the game’s dynamics coming so soon after going behind.
If a silver lining is to be gleaned from a soggy, disappointing afternoon it may be the emergence of Lolley as the player we have all wanted him to be. He caused problems whenever he had the ball but tempered his enthusiasm with better timing of his passing for others to be given the opportunity of capitalising on the space he creates.
Apart from his eye catching run and pass preceding the penalty, he played a precision pass to Wells in the first half which brought a good save from City’s keeper and his was the last contribution with a simple pass to Bunn before the goal. A constant menace, his potential is frightening and he seems to revel in the freedom Wagner has given him.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge a good win for Bristol. They were very good in the first half and really should have finished Town off by the break, and while they rode their luck a little in the second period they defended stoutly and frustratingly to pick up the points which took them above their hosts.
With injuries and a short turnaround to cope with, Wagner has to come up with a revised plan to take 3 vital points from another relegation rival on Tuesday to banish the idea that St Andrews was just yet another false dawn.
(I won’t be there to witness it, though. Florida and better Christmas weather beckons – my next report will be against Bolton. If they still exist)